A few years ago I tried out a new hobby, fly fishing. It’s something that always appealed to me on a more or less spiritual level. I’ll admit, the whole idea of standing in the middle of a cold mountain stream, casting a line with the intent of luring a trout into thinking my artificial fly was actually a real insect, came across in my imagination as a “romantic” pursuit (well, “romantic” in the classic literary sense). Although I haven’t kept up a regular practice of fly-fishing (which, I must tell you, is essential to get any good at it), I keep coming back to it from time to time,. This is true, even though my home state of Missouri doesn’t offer quite the same opportunities as Colorado, where both my adult kids (and my granddaughter!) live.
Of course, the Oscar-winning movie A River Runs Through It may have had something to do with my flight of imagination, too. Anyway, even though I certainly enjoy a tasty dinner of baked, grilled or pan-fried trout, just standing in a naturally chilled mountain stream on a warm and sunny day, while surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and not catching anything is still a pretty attractive prospect.
Except for a couple times as a kid on Boy Scout outings, no doubt trying to earn a merit badge, I’d never cared much for fishing. It’s not that I never became a fisherman because I hated the idea–rather, the opportunities just weren’t there. And so if somebody wants to spend their time (and money–and you can certainly spend a lot of it) on fishing, whether it be fly fishing or the more popular varieties using live bait of some sort, I say more power to them. Even though I can’t quite wrap my mind around the whole concept of professional, competitive bass fishing, for example, that’s okay with me if folks want to do that, too.
In either case, what we North Americans need to keep in mind when we think of “fishing” is that our modern, highly individualistic activity is not at all what fishing meant to Jesus’ contemporaries in ancient Judea. Back then fishing was a predominately group activity: men either standing on shore or in a boat together casting out nets. It’s what we refer to today as seining–and it’s about as different as can be from a guy or gal standing in the middle of a trout stream in solitary pursuit of a single fish being tricked into biting what it thinks will be a tasty snack.
With all that in mind, let’s pick up the action from this week’s lectionary passage from Matthew’s Gospel:
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. –Matthew 4:17-23 NRSV
The key phrase in all that is “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in a pleasant, literary way as “I’ll make you fishers of men” does but it’s all the same idea and, of course, much more socially correct). It shouldn’t be too surprising that we North Americans tend to understand that metaphor according to the way we understand fishing, as an individualistic pursuit. And so we promote evangelistic efforts on a one-to-one basis. But that’s not the kind of fishing Jesus had in mind when he called those fishermen to become his first disciples.
He didn’t say “Drop your pole [whether that be simple bamboo or an ultralight graphite] and I’ll teach you how to go after individuals one by one.” What he did say, essentially, was “Drop the nets that you all are using to catch dozens if not hundreds of fish at once and I’ll teach you how to throw a different kind of net, a spiritual one, to reach dozens if not hundreds [thousands, millions?] of people who themselves will become ‘fisherpersons’ like yourselves.”
I’m not saying one-to-one evangelism is a bad thing, by any means, or that we Christian disciples shouldn’t use that as a basis for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others. But at the very least what I am saying is that individualistic evangelism is certainly not the only or even the primary method to “make disciples of all nations”–at least, if we’re to follow the example of Jesus.
Of course, if our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ is something akin to a “me and Jesus in the garden” theology, then an “each one, win one” approach is the best if not the only way to go. I have to confess that’s not my theology, my understanding of God’s purpose revealed in Jesus Christ.I need read no further than this same passage from Matthew to see the pattern of Jesus’ ministry: preaching and teaching and healing. That’s a pretty big task right there, and while there are certainly many nuances and appendages and subcategories to Jesus’ purpose and ministry, that’s not at all a bad place to start patterning our own ministry and calling.